By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 7, 2009
NAIROBI, Aug. 6 -- After a decade of U.S. concern that Somalia could become a base for terrorists bent on launching attacks across the region, many analysts say that al-Qaeda's Somali sympathizers are at their weakest, and perhaps also at their most dangerous, point in years.
According to Somali analysts, U.S. officials and others, the country's Islamist rebels, known as al-Shabab, are becoming more divided and unpopular across this war-weary and traditionally moderate Muslim country -- a development that makes the group more vulnerable but that is also driving some factions to embrace the most extreme leaders linked with al-Qaeda.
A recent move by the group to purge members deemed "impure" Muslims -- including the beheading of seven militiamen last month -- and other brutal actions are signs, some say, of the Shabab's growing desperation.
"What we have seen over the last few months is that many things have weakened them significantly," said a U.S. government analyst who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. "There are splits in their organization. The level of support they had among Somalis is no longer there. More and more, they are on their own."
In a meeting with Somali President Sharif Ahmed in Nairobi on Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reiterated long-standing U.S. concerns about Somalia but also called Ahmed's government "the best hope we've had in quite some time for a return to stability" in the volatile nation in the Horn of Africa. The United States recently shipped 40 tons of ammunition to boost the fragile interim government's fight against the rebels, and Clinton pledged Thursday to expand that assistance.
Rebels still hold vastly more territory than does the government led by Ahmed, a moderate Islamist now doing battle against them. The Shabab controls most of southern Somalia and half of the capital, Mogadishu, and it has made territorial gains to the north in recent months. A suicide bomber recently killed Somalia's security minister, a charismatic figure who had been crucial to the government's campaign. The rebels have also been bolstered by an influx of hundreds of fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Britain, the United States and other countries.
At the same time, the Shabab -- whose rank and file are mostly young men who grew up in a chaotic society without much hope of a future independent of the AK-47 -- is increasingly bereft of causes that once rallied many Somalis.
Though Somalis are traditionally pragmatic, moderate Muslims, the Shabab became popular when it helped defeat a group of hated warlords as the military wing of a movement that deployed Islamic law to restore some order in Mogadishu. After a U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion ousted that movement in 2006, the Shabab rallied followers against the occupiers and the secular government they installed.
But times have changed. The Ethiopians withdrew this year. Ahmed, who is popular in southern Somalia, took power, and his government has gathered international support. In addition, about 4,000 African Union peacekeepers in Mogadishu are quietly taking a more active role against the rebels, the U.S. analyst said.
And in a move that robbed the Shabab of perhaps its last cause, Ahmed's government has imposed Islamic law across the country.
"They're under siege politically and militarily," said Rashid Abdi, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. "They're out of ideas. Now they're just moral police roaming the villages, terrorizing people."
In the areas they control, gangs of young rebels are erratically imposing their own notions of Islamic law. They have stoned to death a young rape victim, flogged women for dancing and lately have been walking the streets with pliers, removing gold and silver teeth from passersby.
"This is really against the national psyche, against the Somali culture," Abdi said. "Somali culture is esoteric, vibrant and diverse, and this puritanical idea is really foreign."
People are trying to leave some Shabab-controlled areas, prompting the rebels to post guards.
But the extremism is causing internal rifts, with some factions arguing, for instance, that locals should choose their own leaders rather than have them imposed upon the people.
The danger now, said Omar Ali Nor, a lawmaker, is that the more desperate the rebels become, the more they are driven to the most extreme al-Qaeda-linked leaders. Rather than pursuing a purely military approach, Nor and others say, Ahmed should attempt to pick off those Shabab factions that are having doubts.
"The Shabab no longer have a good relationship with the local community, and they are not unified," Nor said. "In my view, the government can exploit that."